David Maddox, The Scotsman 30 January 2009
PARENTS from poor backgrounds should be offered credits to give them the freedom to choose where they send their children to school.
The proposal from Reform Scotland, an independent right-of-centre think tank, would also see a new wave of independent schools opened in Scotland.
The report\’s authors believe a "root-and-branch" reform of the education system is needed to combat failure, particularly for children who live in relative poverty, whom they claim are abandoned by the system.
The proposals have met with a negative response from the Scottish Government, although ministers have welcomed the think-tank\’s willingness to find a new, innovative approach.
A spokesman for Fiona Hyslop, the education secretary, said: "We agree with Reform Scotland that high-quality education needs to be delivered to all pupils and that improvements need to be accelerated.
"That\’s why we are working with all parts of the education system on Curriculum for Excellence – a new curriculum approach, supported by robust qualifications and assessment framework, appropriate professional development and effective leadership."
But Geoff Mawdsley, the director of Reform Scotland, said he was optimistic the proposals would be taken seriously.
The think tank wants to create an environment where a wave of new independent schools can be opened across Scotland. It has looked at evidence from Holland and Sweden, where it is much easier for new schools to open because government support for parent choice has created a larger market.
And Reform Scotland has argued that the keys to better education for all in the long term are more power for parents to choose where children are taught and greater autonomy for schools. Mr Mawdsley said the best way to do this was to offer credits similar to vouchers.
He said: "They are not vouchers, in that parents do not have an actual piece of paper, but the idea is pretty much the same.
"This would give parents a greater say in choosing the school they believe will help their child fulfil his or her potential, whether it is a state school in the same area, a state school on the other side of town or an independently run, state-funded school, so long as its charges were the same as or less than the value of the entitlement."
Mr Mawdsley added that the call for this to be open to parents from poorer backgrounds first was partly based on immediate need and also because change in the system would have to be phased in.
"We recognise there is a capacity issue with schools and it would take time for new independent schools to be opened.
"Obviously, need is greater for children from poorer backgrounds whose parents do not have the means of making the same choices as others."
The credits would at first be given to parents whose children qualify for free school meals.
The think-tank pointed to research which showed schools with higher percentages of pupils registered for free school meals – a key social indicator – had lower exam results, more youngsters leaving and not continuing in education, training or work, and higher truancy.